Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Laura Cannell

Laura Cannell | 11th December 2019

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Laura Cannell:

A Lullaby of Loss and a Lullaby of Joy

This year I feel like a fundamentally changed person, and as part of that I’m going to tell you a secret about the music in my life…I have listened almost exclusively to BBC Radio 1 this year. Yes the music I make is usually categorised in the experimental / improvised / composer / performer / alternative / minimalist / new / contemporary department of the music industry, but here is what I have learned: I love music, singing is a gift, words are magical. I have thrown all judgement of what I think pop music is out of the window, because it has changed. This could in part be because the music industry has changed and the tracks getting through are also based on streaming so people have a different kind of musical presence. It’s both opened up new routes to audiences and made algorithmically compatible music excel in the lists – that part of it is complicated – but there is so much good music that does get through.

This listening is not a shameful secret; I just used to listen to the radio for stories and documentaries, and I would choose the music I would listen to – usually whole albums, following tangents and suggestions. Or more honestly, I would listen to three or four albums on repeat for a year at a time, and always gravitate to instrumental rather than lyrics. I wanted to imagine the meanings behind, not explicitly hear the words. This daily music has helped me to work more efficiently, and in a happier way. The main problem with listening to music is that it is the one thing you can’t do while you are working as a musician, although I developed a practicing habit of keeping the radio on and playing against whatever the pulse of the tune was. This was a short-lived but quite fun challenge. Sometimes I think I’ll write in to R1 and tell them they are part of my practice routine! I’m pretty sure that it hasn’t seeped into my sound yet, but I am making more electronic music…I have had some ideas up my sleeve for this for a while, so watch this space. 

The constant barrage of new releases has also brought joy at a time of loss. On the penultimate day of December we experienced a great loss in our family. I know I am not alone, but the journey of finding out who you are after shock and grief was previously intangible in comparison. I found that the structure and music of Radio 1 has re-carved my relationship with the world, it has been a strange friend, who I didn’t really think I liked that much to be honest and I felt very distant from. Associating it only as someone that I had to sit with on the school bus every morning and afternoon to and from school, collecting all the farm kids and village kids along the way. I used to walk a quarter of a mile with my cello in a soft case, knocking it against the verge and bumping it up the steep steps of the bus. I would shove the cello indelicately on to one of the front seats and be blasted with shouty and annoying DJs for the 4-mile trip to Loddon. This was my last experience of chart music, but the impact of the (often creepy) bus drivers’ radio station of choice stayed with me.

I have to abandon attempting the chronology of the year we are leaving behind as it has been peculiar and unprecedented. But I know that I will have released two albums with my label Brawl Records (The Sky Untuned and Sing As The Crow Flies), one as my alter-ego Isobel Raven for EMI (Ancient Atmospheres Vol.1), one collaboration with God Unknown Records (Whistling Arrow), and recorded a new solo album commissioned by The Wapping Project which comes out in 2020, plus Isobel wrote and recorded two other library music albums. I have performed solo in my dream venue Queen Elizabeth Hall on The Southbank as part of Oliver Coates’ Deep Minimalism, I have been published in a pamphlet and read aloud from it at the launch (something I never thought I could do). I have sung on stage solo and duo with my collaborator Polly Wright, creating a live version of Sing As The Crow Flies, which began as an improvisation together and turned into a six-week sound installation on a sculpture trail and was then Folk Album of the Month in The Guardian in August. I have made over 1000 pompoms which were also installed for six weeks. I have been recorded in session for an Amazon detective show soundtrack, I have put up a shed, I have planted some lavender, I have tried to share with people who need support at difficult times. I have always been in the room and not passing through when I am performing. I’ve made an embarrassing video with one of my idols, Kathryn Tickell, on YouTube (in which I wish I hadn’t spoken! But I did, so I have to live with it – and the playing was good). I also worked as a music consultant for the Historic Royal Palaces for a couple of days, on a project creating a ‘Lullaby of Loss’ and a ‘Lullaby of Joy’ for the wives of Henry VIII and their lost children, reworking the melodies of music from the court of Henry VIII to evoke solitary joy and loss in private chambers and chapels. Not quite major and not quite minor melodies flit around the words, making them ambiguous and even more emotional: ‘My Joy and my Sweetheart’.

With Polly Wright

I have also been patronised by sound engineers, and I have been pleasantly surprised by them. I have wanted to quit touring, and then had an amazing experience. I have travelled less and created more. I have made new friends, and tried to share what I have. I have co-composed (with Polly Wright & André Bosman), recorded and produced music for an incredible Catwalk show at  London Fashion Week. I have started a really huge sound project called The Bell Effect after a conversation on instagram with a friend about bells, which so far has received over 100 recordings of bells tolling from 2 seconds to 45 minutes long. It seems that I will be ringing the bells for the new decade all year long.

This isn’t my whole year but it is a glimpse, a shadow and a reflection.

Every day that I am working from home I get to see the local inhabitants, the return of the green woodpecker, the tufty farm rabbits, the hares, the little owl, the gaggle of partridges that we have named (Pufty and Pufty’s friend, and Pufty’s friend’s friend) who freak out at every sound, and then the fox. The tragedy of a neighbour’s horse that I helped with, by talking to him calmly and holding his reign while his eighteen year old owner phoned for help while he was dying. Hugging strangers in their sad and broken moments.

People lose people. People love people. People need people and don’t need people. No relationship is the same, nothing can compare to the people we lose, and the loss feels like yesterday and a year together and at once. Lurching and remembering. Remembering and heads dizzying to the constant reminders. My most recent dizzying lurch being the recipe book I was given by you to fill with my own recipes. Scrawling with messy tangled writing on the pages, and marking down the flavours and ingredients. I sketched a pumpkin with a distinctly un-smiley face for the atrocious pumpkin pie that I spent an afternoon making. Every time I go through the book I cringe past that page remembering how wrong that pie was, but it has to stay in the book with a clear warning not to follow the recipe. I think of you as I use the biscuit cutters from your kitchen.

Losing someone opens your heart more and can make you do things you believed weren’t possible. For me it has been re-discovering my voice by reading in public and singing in public, making an unaccompanied vocal album. Comforting a horse and his owner on his death bed, driving across the country, watching someone you love leaving you for good. There is no good time to go, but you have gone, and the days can be bright again, and we can cry because we miss you and dream about you. Because we want to tell you silly things, and silly things you have given us have more meaning because you touched them and thought of us. We can think about the conversations we would have, you aren’t here but I have decided to have them anyway, and to think what your advice and comforting cosy words would be. The shadows aren’t dark, but they are definitely there and life has changed.

I thought I would finish there but then I realised that at the end of 2018 I never submitted my Shadows and Reflections for Caught by the River. I just found the beginnings of last year’s and decided that as it is relevant every year, I would include a family tradition for all to see.

Every year in December I speak to my dad and he proudly announces that he has just bought the Christmas Sofa. No we aren’t crazy, rich or indecisive people who a need new sofa every year, but this has become a tradition of sorts. Every year my sister and I go to our parents’ house to decorate the Christmas room, again not a room that we only open for the holiday but because their house functions as an antiques shop downstairs and a living area upstairs. 

In order to have enough space for indoor socialising, we have to ‘rationalise’ (my mum’s overly official word for tidy) the bigger of the three showrooms and turn it into the everything room. But as stock changes, you can never be sure that there will be anything to sit on or eat at by the time winter comes around, hence the traditional phone call to say that this year we will be sitting on an ex-don’s sofa from a Cambridgeshire auction house for £20 (some years the quality is not as hot as that).

I wrote about family and local superstitions, folklore and rituals for CBTR eara couple of years back, and I am looking forward to sitting on this sofa and continuing our annual mid-winter Cannell family ritual.